An Interview with Gillian Weir and Lawrence Phelps

(This interview appeared initially in the Organ Alternatives publication #25, December 1998-February 1999 quarterly issue.)

In this month's interview feature, we've chosen to draw in our 'Courting the King' feature into the traditional PIPEVision model, since the conversation touches on bringing both areas (organ performance and construction) out of a certain inwardness into the broader world. We invite readers to be drawn into a certain passion which pervades the work and philosophy of all of its participants. Gillian Weir made her North American debut recital in Toronto in 1967 as part of that year's International Congress of Organists. 31 years have successfully carried her from being a young and rare female virtuoso organist to being one of the organ world's most thoughtful, articulate, and respected figures, while doing nothing to dull her unique and irresistible appeal. We are sorry to note that Lawrence Phelps passed away many months after this interview, having been one of the most influential figures in Canadian organ building in this century. Larry Phelps worked as Tonal Director (and later, President) of Casavant Frères for nearly twenty years during the crucial years of the organ reform movement's taking root and flourishing in this country. Weir and Phelps, who were married, were in Toronto in early November 1998 to take part in the celebrations surrounding the inauguration of a new organ at Lawrence Park Community Church. On the morning after Ms. Weir's recital and before their departure for their next concert stop, Chris Dawes seized a rare opportunity to chat with these two remarkable people in the downtown Hotel Novotel, in the shadow of the spire of St. James' Cathedral.

CD: I was intrigued to read in last night's programme that "Gillian Weir... has been hailed as in great measure responsible for the new image of the concert organist." I'd love to hear what each of you believe that image is (and Gillian, whether it's something for which you particularly care to take responsibility)!

GW: Well, that puts me on the spot! I'm not sure really what was meant by that!

LP: In a sense, there really were not that many concert organists before Gillian... [E. Power] Biggs was really the first fully professional concert organist, and as far as I know, Gillian was the second.

GW: It must to some extent refer to people who just do concerts: there are great musicians everywhere, who have church and cathedral posts and who also play concerts brilliantly, but that is something slightly different.

LP: Gillian also inspired a generation of others to do the same.

GW: Yes, there are a greater number of young people doing it, especially women who may have been encouraged by me in recording, performing, and so on. When I started playing, people especially in England thought it was rather strange for a woman to play the organ at all. One time, a man said to a cousin of mine who happened to be visiting the church where I played, "Kindly tell your cousin that she is the wrong sex to play the organ", which I found very amusing, although I doubt he meant it to be. And they thought about the organ as being absolutely rooted in the Anglican Church, and could see no other tradition of building or playing as being 'proper'. It's difficult and frustrating when you're dealing with that sort of 'locked in' point of view, and perhaps I've helped to get past that, at least in England.

CD: Is a 'concert organist' only definable by what he or she doesn't do, i.e. hold a church position? Surely there's some positive aspect to it... I wondered whether it referred to a kind of communication or relationship with audience which is inherently different from that of church organist to congregation.

GW: Yes, certainly, and also the freedom to express oneself as an individual artist, rather than just the person who enables an organ to be heard.

CD: Church organists seem often to be architecturally suppressed in one way or another, perhaps to achieve a kind of detachment or subservience to their instrument.

GW: But that's one of the most frustrating and dangerous things: the organ begins to take precedence over the performer. The organ is an incredibly fascinating instrument: it's fascinating in a technological sense, in a philosophical sense, in a visual sense, but it is still an instrument under human control. One of the worst things one can hear is "You demonstrated the organ very well." Once it was even worse: one man told me I had demonstrated the builder's Nazard very well! I felt like one of those girls in bikinis at the motor shows 'demonstrating' a new Ford or something. You don't demonstrate the organ: the organ is there to present the music first, then the ideas of the interpreter second. The instrument is just that, something which functions on behalf of someone or something else, and although it is incredibly fascinating it's just like a wonderful canvas, tubes of paint and a palette: it is what it is. It's not the painting, and can only help to produce the painting along with skilled hands and imagination.

LP: The means, rather than the end.

CD: Lawrence, what do builders contribute to this state of affairs, this 'organo-centricity'?

LP: At times, very much depending on how successful they are. G. Donald Harrison had the longest successful career, and he did it in a time when 'the organ' was gaining new importance as builders like him worked against the recent past. There was so much fanfare around his first contract, the Mother [Christ, Scientist] Church in Boston, that it moved the organ front and centre, and gave him more work than he knew what to do with.

CD: Because we 'inaugurate' organs, like Presidents, and 'dedicate' them, like priests or holy objects, the excitement around an event like that, or like last night makes it easy to understand a heightened level of self-satisfaction builders attain.

GW: I don't decry the importance of organ building: the organ is really a work of art. And of course it has a dual role as work of art and technological marvel, and each of these things can be appreciated in its own right, without great music and performers. But when we perform, we must remember that the music comes first, and is not just there to serve the organ. Now, in an event like last night I try very hard to show all the colours of the organ, all the styles of music it can and will play, but never ever to let the music suffer because of that.

CD: What exactly do you mean by 'let the music suffer'?

GW: It always amazes me how every year, there is another competition winner who comes up and says "I am going to make the organ popular", and their way of doing it is to denigrate the organ by using repertoire which is not worthy of the organ. These talented people are constantly playing down to the audience, and I find it insulting and pointless. It's like saying to a child, "This is a BAA-BAA... this is a MOO-MOO...": eventually you just have to say it's a sheep or a cow, and not apologise! What's the point of playing rubbish, virtually, in the expectation that it will suddenly make them like the literature? But what we can do is help show them what we hear and value about the instrument and the music, and that will be far more successful because it is genuine. That's what I think about my role as a player: I think of myself as someone who is also 'listening to' the music, it's just that I also serve as a form of guide, as though I were saying, "I like this part", or "I love this chord or change of registration or harmony", to aid the audience in its enjoyment of the same.

CD: In another dichotomy, and I'd like to address this question in slightly different ways to both of you, where do you fall along the continuum between following a composer's intentions (real or imagined) and expressing your own? Do you see these two pursuits as being in conflict, and if so, how do you resolve that conflict?

GW: I don't go as far as saying "I'm going to do what I want", but I do tend to prefer to listen to the music itself, rather than discerning or devising every possible instruction or factor affecting performance. I think of a work of art as something independent of its creator to a certain extent, and like a diamond hanging in the light, it flashes differently depending on which face is showing. So people can see that diamond from a number of different points of view, while still having every glimpse remain true to its inner nature. That sounds paradoxical: it is hard to say what I mean by this, other than that saying either "I'm going to do whatever I want", or "I'm going to be copy exactly what the composer wants" are both bad. One is impossible, of course, because it is never possible to know the composer's total intentions, let alone remain faithful to them; the other is just silly because you're using the music rather than respecting it as an entity. I do think music has its own nature and that is what we are trying to communicate with, and the synthesis of what we discover with our own nature provides something which is unique, genuine, and at the same time, true to the music (we hope, anyway).

CD: What is responsible for the wide proliferation of the rather extraordinary notion that we can truly mirror the intentions of a composer who lived two or three hundred years ago?

GW: We've had a culture for some time in which students are taught to follow certain formulas of articulation, phrasing, as though they were deaf, and couldn't use their ears and the musical gesture to dictate some of these things: then, if they follow these formulas they will play the piece exactly as the composer would have heard or imagined it.

LP: The worse thing is, why train everyone to play the same way? If we only wanted to hear one thing, we'd only have to have one organist. Two churches in Boston have weekly recitals, and except for a few performers, it seems the same all the time. After a while you just wish you weren't there.

CD: There's another continuum between the listener experiencing the organ (the object) and the organist (the animal).

LP: That's right, and you can always go to weekly recitals and appreciate things about the organ: they're always there. But the extraordinary things can only happen at the hands of the organist.

CD: Larry, to redirect the last question to you, where do you as a builder fall between following what history and composers suggest about the organ for a particular time or piece and expressing your own builder's feelings on what would best serve the music?

LP: Well, the secret that everyone seems to miss about the organ is that it was created and evolved for hundreds of years before it had any literature at all. The literature is the result of a creative person's encounter with the organ, and that is true for Bach, Messiaen... everyone, but the instruments they worked with were descended from ones which evolved totally unaffected by the literature. No one coming in from Mars listening to the music could believe that the organ Messiaen wrote for was the same instrument as the one Widor wrote for, and yet it was, exactly the same instrument, despite the differences in the music.

CD: Is the organ literature's immense size a problem?

LP: One of the sad things is that so much of it is just not very good music, and the composers just not very good composers. You don't find Widor's orchestral symphonies being played ever, but we hear the organ symphonies twenty times a year. Because they're better music? No, because organists choose or feel bound to play them. Mind you, trying and failing to correct this had a big part in shaping the organ reform movement: builders and scholars decided they would only build organs for 'worthy' music.

CD: But they defined 'worthy' on the basis of when it had been written, rather than more useful criteria.

LP: That's where it got into trouble. But the best thing about the movement was at it brought back some form of guiding principles and unity of structure. That was the most important thing and the best thing.

GW: The problem with what was going on before was not really that the organs would or would not play certain music: it was that music, like all the arts, is about relationships and logical proportions. Structure in a symphonic piece is like that, the relationship between sections in the baroque is like that, and originally that's how the organ grew up. As Larry says, it developed very fully before it had any literature, but it did not develop in an untrammelled way: it was built not according to the principle of "having nice sounds to use", but according to the laws of physics and acoustics.

LP: That was the principle that went away towards the end of the 19th century, and we had a lot of random creations, which if you think about it were rather like the end of century and turn of century age. And it carried on into the work of Skinner and Casavant through the first half of the century: there were many 'customs' being followed, but there were no principles.

CD: Do you think organ music suffered during the reform age?

LP: I don't think music suffered, except in that performances of much of it ceased, because they were impossible. You really couldn't play a Widor symphony or a Franck chorale - or if you could, it was like a pet seal, "Oh, look how well it does this!" - even though it was not designed to. Critical standards for listening were washed aside to enable people to say nice things about things that just didn't sound nice at all!

GW: It was an extraordinary time... while people were quite rightly saying we couldn't play Bach on the tubas anymore, it was made perfectly acceptable to play Franck in Werckmeister III and with no swell pedal. It was an astonishing lack of objectivity. The only way to keep a ship on course is to have and use a rudder, and the only rudder possible in organ design, performance, and teaching is the music. That is what you keep coming back to, and if questions arrive they're answered very easily. Otherwise is becomes anarchic, and with anarchy you never have a goal.

LP: This has never happened in any branch of music that I know, except the organ, until recently when baroque instrumentalists were all trained in the same way and ended up playing exactly the same way. Thankfully, they have moved past that stage, and so are the organists moving past it.

CD: The other thing is that while the organ reform movement virtually took over the entire organ culture (sleepy conservative churches and all!), whereas the other original instrument movement took a parallel course, so that today there are frequent performances of old music on both modern and old instruments, and ultimately no attempt to push the period instrument past the death of Mozart has succeeded in unseating people's satisfaction with modern instruments.

LP: The most important thing about the romantic organ was not that it could emulate the orchestra or do colourful things... it was that it could support a continuous crescendo/decrescendo. Even though he was a reformer, Harrison had his own way of thinking about this, which he didn't discuss with many people: he felt the crescendo should be seamless, just like a trumpet player's crescendo can be, but without the most important feature of the romantic organ: that the crescendo could be done at the 8 foot level, without adding octaves and mixtures and other harmonics. In America, earlier builders had pursued this idea of the 8-foot crescendo by making very large, loud, unmusical eight foot stops like 'tibias' and 'diaphones' - again, sounds that would never have been tolerated anywhere else in the musical world.

CD: It's an odd sub-culture, isn't it? I wonder if I could ask the two of you what makes the organ world, so... well, odd.

LP: The church, for one thing.

GW: The whole idea of the church, at one time was that it stood for the highest possible standards in everything... ideally for perfection, I suppose. So it would promote calligraphy, architecture, stained glass, music, and the whole works. This often isn't the case any more: it is given terrible names like 'elitism', and many churches, it seems, spend all their energy running after people saying "What do you want, in order to come and sit in our pews for a while?" This is perhaps what makes the work of the Committee at Lawrence Park so extraordinary and commendable, that they took on so expensive and ambitious a project of their own design, rather than simply appealing to whatever is seen as the latest trend. If you take that point of view, obviously music will suffer, and music has suffered a great deal. There were things like the Oxford movement in England which moved the organ from its rightful place on the central axis of the building, and the other forces of Protestant reform that hid it away beneath the aisles, in separate rooms, behind curtains.

CD: Or did away with it entirely, as in early Calvinism. But when they brought it back, and it came to represent congregational singing, they built wonderful cases, playing up its role as visual inspirator.

GW: Oh, yes it's a wonderful work of art, you should see it. First of all, the case is tremendously important to the design of the organ, and its successful functioning, musically. Secondly, it can be a marvellous work of art, and should look like that. But I would like to see builders be a bit more imaginative: obviously there are some things you just can't compromise; there are certain relationships that must be maintained: the pipes mustn't be in any old order in the case, or with a row of mute, wooden pipes that create a barrier to the sound as there often are. But I do feel builders could be more imaginative while observing principles of sound construction and good acoustics in building cases that fit their settings, like for example in building around a rose window - always a tremendous problem, and usually left unsolved, without even considering, say, building circularly around it.

LP: There's actually a lot more innovation in organ case work than most people think: you never see even a twentieth of them in the press. Looking through organ builders' catalogues you can get a better idea of some of the fantastic things being done by a few builders. There's one in Tokyo I was looking at that's almost in the shape of a face, and it kind of suits the organ even if it doesn't look anything like any organ you've ever seen.

GW: And Jean Guillou has designed one in the shape of a hand... it can be truly dramatic and truly of our age. But here again you run into this polarisation: builders who either do entirely there own thing with no sense of being informed by history, or else those who copy history meticulously, faults and all to similarly disappointing effect. Why can't we have an intelligent point of view which goes down the middle - it's the same with performance. That is really what Larry and I have in common: he looks on building the way I look on performance: firmly rooted in historical principles. But 'principles' means something quite different from rules or laws, leaving the way open to creativity and personal enhancement.

CD: The organ is an artistic medium which is understandably identified with Christian expression in our culture. How do you think it represents that, which was clearly so key to so much of its history?

GW: It's a matter of the quality of things. That's what Christianity stands for... for absolutism, rather than relativism, in a way.

LP: Christianity is also founded on principles, like "Love thy neighbour".

GW: Yes. "Be thou therefore perfect" ...we must remember that word 'perfect' means 'complete' in the original... it doesn't mean just 'without fault' (no wrong notes!). Therefore it implies a kind of completeness: you are on a different plane of understanding, you live in a different world, and I think this can be defined not in words, but by example; and the organ, which unites art, craftsmanship and science, mind and spirit does this. Everyone knows the sense of being moved by something, be it art, or a story or event. But we have had a process of 'dumbing down', or not nurturing people's capacity to think clearly and independently about that sense, and again, this has endangered everything we do because without this 'rudder', or this sense of something against which to measure and judge what we do in expressing our art, or our faith, or whatever, all sorts of things can happen. Take sentimentality: a little is a very good thing, and doesn't hurt, but a great deal of it does hurt, because it can replace true compassion which is a force that really addresses suffering, whereas sentimentality merely concurs with it.

CD: Is militant historical practice another manifestation?

GW: Absolutely! It's particularly bad in the organ world because the instrument has always been so functionally important that we have all of these treatises which we read and misunderstand. And of course, I am misunderstood when I say this, because you can and must come to know a piece a great deal better than you can from just reading the musical notes... but through its context, not just through one author's opinions. 'Context' has become my favourite word... understanding what gave rise to this saying, or this directive, or this custom or habit. In other words, you don't learn about baroque dance by copying down and studying writings on the subject... you learn about it by learning to do it, to know the tempi, the accents and other things probably taken completely for granted by treatise writers who lived with them every day. Simply teaching someone who is used to slumming around in jeans and a tee shirt to stand correctly and try to move appropriately teaches them far more about the music than copying down someone's opinion on how to play the trill in bar three of a specific piece. That's real understanding, and that's real scholarship. And it's incredible how quickly these gains are made - not by practising in a certain way for three years, but by hearing, suddenly, what music was.

CD: It's as though something already there, within the student is being freed?

GW: I love the word 'free'! My whole idea about teaching is to liberate from chains if I can. Not so much from the chains of unknowing, but from the chains the world has put on them.

CD: I wonder if I could ask each of you, very familiar with Canada over a substantial period of time, to share any thoughts you have on the country and its organ scene?

LP: Well, I found it very open, partly because of events at the time I came. My freedom in working with Casavant was in my view due to one thing, and that was the sale of organs in Montréal by a foreign builder. When Queen Mary Road United, the Oratoire and Imaculée-Conception bought von Beckerath instruments in the early sixties, at the direction of the Board, who didn't want to be left behind, we responded with two neo-classical organs, Saint-Martyrs Canadièns and Cap-de-la-Madeleine. When I came as a consultant in 1958, Casavant had just a six months' work, and within those six months we had established a two-year backlog.

GW: That's something a lot of people don't know about, and it was an extraordinary "business" thing to do: but it was done by bringing the company into the new age.

CD: Did you find this openness to change echoed in the rest of Canada, where you've certainly been very influential as well?

LP: I never had to fight anyone in building these new instruments. When I went to see Mr. Rathgeb in Toronto about the organ he wanted to give to Deer Park United Church, he had already made all of the important decisions: it was to be a mechanical organ, it was to be encased... and he asked me how much it would cost. So I told him, and he took a little slip of paper out of his desk drawer...

CD: ... and filled in the amount?!

LP: Yes! And even in the churches where we rebuilt and revoiced, of course there were always a few dissenting voices, but they were overall very open to what was a very sudden change in what their ears had come to expect. And we built them right out to Vancouver and Victoria too.

GW: Canada has so many, many fine musicians... always has had. I think the country has a unique opportunity, really. It isn't so bowed down by tradition as many countries. It knows tradition, it has tradition, but it isn't buried by it. That's not to say it doesn't know to respect tradition; it certainly does, but people are also used to the idea that theirs is a young country and a new country, and that they can look at things in a new way. It's a very natural thing, and its some-thing that should be nurtured, and rejoiced in.

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